The image that perhaps best captures my experience in the Columbia River Correctional Institution might sound odd and even a bit gruesome at first. This image is a new pair of eyes and a broken heart. First, the eyes. Through readings brought to life by vigorous and personal discussions, I slowly came to see the world through the eyes of those to whom we are usually blinded. There were facts and figures I encountered in the class readings that would certainly have alarmed me had I encountered them on my own. Realistically, however, this alarm probably would have died down and been relegated to some obscure and rarely frequented corner of my mind. The world is a harsh place, but life goes on. These facts and figures and policies became personally significant, however, when I began to see how they were reflected in the lives of many of the men sitting around me each week. Through the eyes of the 'inside' students—as revealed through stories, impressions, and discussions—I came to see just how absurd and senseless the mathematics, logic, and economics of the criminal justice system in the United States can be. I realized that mathematics, logic, and economics that deal with human lives could only do good if they took into account the intrinsic value of human life. For me, only when the facts were imbued with an existential meaning could they become meaningful. Only then could they become imperatives. Finally, the heart. As easy as it is for me to judge and condemn so-called “murderers” and “robbers” from outside prison bars, this task is radically complicated when I meet human beings. Try as I might, when I encounter a person as a fellow human being and not as a concept it is impossible not to have my heart broken when I hear and see the brutal impact that the meticulous and heartless extraction of years upon years has on a human life (and on the myriad lives connected with that life).
The people in this course have been instrumental in the cultivation of a new organ of sight and the breaking of a recalcitrant heart. I hope that this is enough to compel me to do something about it.
Lewis and Clark College